Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

The Zero Theorem

August 23, 2014

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The sickly neon lighting, the relentless Dutch angles, the grab-bag mix of futuristic and steampunk design, the theme of escape from bureaucratic control through fantasy: these are all excellent indicators that you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, and his new one, The Zero Theorem, is the Terry Gilliamest piece in his portfolio in quite a while. I wish I could say that I mean that as a compliment, but Gilliam’s flaws may be inseparable from his strengths: when he’s on, he’s brilliant, but when he whiffs, the bleak swooshing sound is deafening, and The Zero Theorem, despite my fervent desire to claim otherwise, is one whiff after another. The surprise here is that most of the ground Gilliam covers here, he already trod devilishly well in Brazil, and after a while I wondered why he didn’t know that. He’s said he considers this film the third in a dystopian trilogy begun by Brazil and continued in 12 Monkeys, but it plays like a Gilliam imitator’s crude remix of the two.

Christoph Waltz, bald and charmless, is the obsessive computer geek Qohen Leth, who toils in a cubicle for the Management, personified by a white-haired eminence (Matt Damon, seemingly doing a Philip Seymour Hoffman turn). Qohen is given the Zero Theorem assignment — he has to prove that everything in the universe adds up to nothing. “Zero must equal 100%,” we’re told by machines again and again. This nihilist math/philosophy problem has broken many other thinkers, and Qohen, who refers to himself as “we” and has the prerequisite collection of genius quirks, finds himself dangerously distracted by blonde femme fatale Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who may have been sent by Management to test his resolve or sabotage his efforts.

Pat Rushin’s script plays as if Rushin fell asleep during a Gilliam marathon, woke up, and cobbled together a screenplay from what he dimly remembered. What’s missing is any emotional charge, any urgency — what William Goldman once called “the pregnant moment,” the reason the story is being told now. Qohen is a passive character obsessed with a phone call he once missed, a phone call he thinks could have revealed his purpose in life. Aside from that, he works on the theorem and he dallies in virtual reality with Bainsley. Much of The Zero Theorem is a two-character play, spiced up by Gilliam’s Dutch angles and colors that snap, crackle and pop. One dialogue scene, between Qohen and Bainsley in the cluttered former monastery he calls home, dribbles on and on; Gilliam seems to have forgotten that editing is part of the art of cinema, the thing that moves the images and the story.

Tedium sets in fast. Gilliam makes the surroundings as candied as he can, with Satire 101 messages running across digital billboards. The Management controls everything, but except for a Mutt and Jeff team of a heavy and his dwarf companion (ah, Gilliam and his dwarves), the Management doesn’t have much of a menacing presence, or a presence at all, really. Qohen stays inside for months grinding away on the theorem, occasionally resisting cybertherapy from Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and sharing irascible dialogue with the Management’s son (Lucas Hedges), a prodigious hacker who calls everyone Bob. Little of this has any dramatic interest; it’s full of bits of sour whimsy, which we’re meant to take as a hip, cynical vision of bland, hellish tomorrow (and tomorrow in this sort of dystopian satire is always today with futuristic trimmings).

One wants to root for Gilliam and his stubbornly uncommercial work, especially if we’ve enjoyed his earlier movies. I get no pleasure from swatting a new Gilliam film — there aren’t going to be very many more of them, he’s not getting any younger, and he has a hell of a time getting these oddball things financed as it is. A salute, then, to Gilliam for staying true to himself, not even knowing how to sell out. But the irony of The Zero Theorem is that it’s a parable about finding meaning in life, but it doesn’t mean much itself. It’s a doodle, a riff on Gilliam’s pet themes, but emotionally and dramatically it’s an inverse of the theorem: 100% of it equals zero.

Lucy

July 27, 2014

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What are the movies trying to tell us about Scarlett Johansson? Of late, she’s been seen (or, in one case, merely heard) in three idiosyncratic sci-fi films directed by people with more on their minds than simple escapism. Spike Jonze’s Her wedded Johansson’s purr to a super-advanced operating system; Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin offered her as an alien harvesting men; and now, in Luc Besson’s Lucy (Luc with a y?), Johansson plays an unwilling drug mule whose cargo of experimental blue powder, leaking into her bloodstream, allows her access to more and more of her brain. In the Besson-verse, this means Johansson becomes the ultimate badass, able to bend matter to her will, until eventually, like Samantha in Her, Lucy slips the bonds of the material world.

What matters to the sane viewer is not whether Lucy is scientifically plausible — it isn’t — but whether it’s an entertaining riff on its hefty themes (like, what is human, man?) — and it mostly is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have many questions about it. Lucy starts out an ordinary young woman with understandably intense emotional responses to her plight — in a nice nod to realism, Besson has her barf at the sight of gangster bloodshed — but as her brain grows, as in so many of these parables, her heart seems to shrink. Johansson becomes dead-eyed and rather spooky, rattling off complex dialogue in a flat affect. She comes across as more inhuman than she was as actual nonhumans in Her and Under the Skin. Reason trumps feeling, I guess — though another nice touch finds Lucy phoning her mom and tearfully sharing infant memories she can now access — but a main character without fear makes for a movie without emotional stakes.

Lucy is probably easy to parody, what with its nods to landmarks of furrowed-brow cinema — at one point, Lucy touches fingers with a curious pre-evolved monkey; finally, Scarlett Johansson as the Monolith! — sometimes playing like Limitless remixed by Godfrey Reggio. It comes complete with a thesis statement, spoken by Johansson in sullen voiceover: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” The peak of human endeavor, apparently, being the ability to take out a hallway full of Korean thugs with a lordly wave of the hand. For extra gravitas, Besson brings in Morgan Freeman, filling the same role he did in the recent and thematically similar Transcendence. Where Johnny Depp sought to crown himself the world’s benevolent cyber-king, though, Lucy just wants to survive, to pass along information as a cell does. Is this the difference between a deus ex machina and a dea ex machina?

Ultimately, Lucy is more interesting as the final panel of the 2013-14 Scarlett Johansson “what is human?” triptych than it is in and of itself. It has its giddy moments, though. When Lucy teams up with a cop (Amr Waked) and takes him on a leadfoot tour of Parisian streets, or when she achieves oneness with every electronic device in Freeman’s lab, Besson shows a muscular imaginative glee that’s hard to fend off. The director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element has never been a thinker; despite Lucy‘s feints towards philosophy, it’s really about the cool visual, the dispassionate masklike beauty of a young woman serving up a bit of ultraviolence. Lucy was not based on a comic book, but it might as well be; essentially, Luc Besson is in the comic-book business.

The Purge: Anarchy

July 21, 2014

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The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 13, 2014

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-5At the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of us were killed off by a man-made virus, while the simians of the world, led by the super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), took to the trees and set about enjoying life without humans. Now, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s around a decade later; Caesar has set up an enormous community of primates near an abandoned dam in San Francisco. Caesar has taught sign language to his subjects, and some, like him, can even speak (I agreed to forget that apes can’t physically speak no matter how smart they are). But there are, it turns out, some humans nearby, and they want to reactivate the dam to get the power back on.

It’s a simple conflict of interests, but the characters on either side are written with an appealing depth. We can see and empathize with all viewpoints. The humans’ leader (Gary Oldman), for instance, who wants to decimate the apes if they won’t allow access to the dam, is not a mustache-twirling sadist but simply a frightened and grieving man charged with protecting his small pocket of humanity. On the other side, the intelligent and peaceable Caesar has a scarred and badass adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humans because they tortured him in the lab. There’s a chilling moment when Caesar refers to “human work” in the dam, and an enraged Koba points to each of his scars, grunting “Human…work! Human…work! HUMAN…WORK!” in a rising line of disgust, and we think, Well…yeah…hard to argue with that.

Caesar is heroic and noble and, as a result, sort of dull next to Koba, who becomes the movie’s anti-hero. He’s sardonic, even satirical — he dupes a couple of idiotic gun-toting humans by engaging in what I can only call simian minstrelsy — and remorselessly vicious. He scares us, and yet the sight of him on horseback wielding two machine guns is inescapably exciting. We’re seeing primal fury, pain, revenge. Koba does evil things in the name of eradicating what he sees as the key threat to his, well, people. In outline it’s the same MLK/Malcolm X conflict we saw between Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films, but it feels more real here, the guilt more intimate, because in the real world there are no superpowered mutants but there certainly are monkeys who continue to be experimented on and subjected to agony in our labs. The new Apes films show the chickens coming home to roost: how long can humans deal stinging blows to nature before nature bites back?

So Dawn becomes something of a war movie, or a pre-war movie, because we’re told that the humans have succeeded in contacting the military, and the next Apes will no doubt be the big throwdown. But here, at least, we’ve sown the seeds for Caesar’s making good on his earlier promise, “Apes do not want war. But we will fight if we must.” Caesar is quite the speechmaker, to the point where he can hold a decent conversation with the kinder-hearted of the humans, such as Jason Clarke as a more temperate leader (he’s Oldman’s right-hand man, in an inversion of the Caesar-Koba dynamic) and Keri Russell as a doctor who tends to sick or wounded apes. Caesar knows there are good humans, and doesn’t have a problem using the language of the enemy, since he doesn’t see them as such. Koba uses English sneeringly, or when he needs to be heard above the din of battle; he has a screechy, ugly speaking voice that suggests English tastes bad in his mouth.

Dawn is confidently directed by Matt Reeves, who made Cloverfield better than it had to be and Let Me In better than I’d expected a remake of Let the Right One In to be. Here he makes a Planet of the Apes sequel way better than it has any right to be, slowing down to capture moments between human and human, between ape and ape, between ape and human — these moments are the spine of the action. When the apes, led by the shrieking Koba, go to battle with the humans, it’s both electrifying and saddening. We’re there for what the poster — ape on horseback waving a gun — promises, but what leads to that visual is a nauseating tangle of grief and pain and mutual distrust. Dawn will be put to work as a stand-in for any current intractable conflict — I’ve already seen the ape/human conflict compared to the Palestinian/Israeli mess. But it feels more elemental than that. Humans, by accident of evolution, became the alphas on Earth, the apex predators, with every other species reduced to the insulted and the injured. Those who rush to find real-world political analogues are perhaps willfully ignoring what Koba so simply and eloquently refers to as human work.

Snowpiercer

July 5, 2014

20140705-190719.jpgThe morosely spectacular Snowpiercer shouldn’t be taken literally. Here is an allegorical science-fiction epic that unfolds aboard a massive train, streaking through the snow-clotted wasteland that used to be civilization. (In July 2014, the movie tells us, we pumped some super-coolant into the atmosphere to curb global warming; it worked too well. Oops.) The poorest folks are stuck in the “tail” of the train, while the one-percenters live it up near the front. A few brave 99-percenters, led by Chris Evans as the bearded, sullen Curtis, decide to move ahead car by car. That’s the movie. It is a thing of pure cinematic beauty, the movie you want in your deck when arguing for the artistic potential of action films. If you must, it’s Runaway Train meets Brazil — Kurosawa and Gilliam, together at last.

It can’t be coincidence, either, that Snowpiercer features a character named Gilliam (John Hurt), an ancient sage minus an arm and a leg, for reasons we eventually discover. Some of the details in the world-building here are so odd they feel about as realistic as anything else; like the director Bong Joon-ho’s previous breakout hit The Host, and indeed like much of South Korean cinema, Snowpiercer is a highly unstable mix of action-flick grimness and surreal monkeyshines. Tilda Swinton, for example, trots into the proceedings with horse teeth and ugly glasses as an officious marshal who explains that the poor are a shoe, and therefore do not belong on the head. Even she looks normal, though, when we reach the train car where children learn the wonders of the man who built the train, a lesson as told by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who packs a machine gun and trills happily at a piano.

Snowpiercer rattles and hums with visionary life, front-loaded with economical character moments, as The Host was, so that by the time we reach the action, it means something. Violence is not cool or a joke to Bong Joon-ho; it ruins lives and cuts down characters we’ve come to like. This sets his work aside from, and high above, the glib head-bashing in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. The fights are not cleverly choreographed — they’re clumsy, gnashing affairs. Bong is more interested in the microcosm represented by the train in each of its cars; a close reader will probably eventually devote more thought to the relevance of the compartments, which lead inexorably to the Kurtz of the piece, Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s architect and god of the engine. Ayn Rand would like him.

Most action films today go down in a bitter, indigestible lump, like the protein blocks we see the poor passengers subsisting on here, made out of ground-up cockroaches. The new Transformers atrocity serves up dead roach chunks from sea to shining sea. Snowpiercer tastes and chews like the steak enjoyed in the engine room, nutritious and full-blooded, made of hearty red meat. If the movie were playing on more than a relative handful of screens nationwide, Chris Evans would get deserved props for a haunted anti-hero much removed from Captain America, and the terrific Song Kang-ho, star of The Host (and again playing Go Ah-sung’s father), would take his place as a wooly icon to shelve alongside Toshiro Mifune and Runaway Train‘s Jon Voight.

The reason so many of us critics are going slightly nuts over Snowpiercer is that, like many foreign films, it does so effortlessly what Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to do. It tells a simple story swollen with symbol and meaning, side dishes which we can either feast on or disregard. It’s edited not for inane adrenaline but for emotional impact, suspense, dread, awe. This hurtling microcosm, cleaving through an uninhabitable void, is a world unto itself, filled with desperate heroics and callous escapism and everything inbetween. As for the gentle-faced Bong Joon-ho, he is very much in the Guillermo del Toro mold, a storyteller who burrows around in genre and tries to expand it from within. Bong has also assumed the mantle of Terry Gilliam in more ways than one: For his troubles, and his vision, distributor Harvey Weinstein has punished Bong’s film by releasing it in a trickle. Bong refused to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer, so Weinstein has made it so that most of the people who would like to see it on the big screen — where it demands to be experienced — won’t be able to. Weinstein should no longer pretend to care about film, and Bong should no longer do business with vulgarians like Weinstein.

Godzilla (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzillaWe begin with a perhaps naïve question: What, if anything, does Godzilla mean to us today? Surely he means something different than he meant to the Japanese sixty years ago, when he made his screen debut as Gojira. For the Japanese audience, Gojira was a radioactive Jungian shadow. For us, driving blithely to the multiplex as the ice caps melt, Godzilla means … warm-weather spectacle, I guess. The new Godzilla pays some visual homage to various worldwide disasters of recent years, but what are we supposed to think or feel about the catastrophes? Nothing, because our thoughts and feelings are perfectly irrelevant. Things will happen, nature will balance itself, the planet may be fine but a great many forms of life on earth may come out in the wash. It’s Noah all over again, appending “zilla” to “the wrath of God.”

According to the new film, Godzilla and the gigantic creatures he battles (known as “MUTOs”) were not born in the crossfire hurricane of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The MUTOs are ancient animals that feed on radiation; Godzilla is an ancient animal that feeds on the MUTOs. We, therefore, are not complicit in creating them, though our many nukes do attract the MUTOs, who seek somewhere nice to chow down, mate, and spawn. A certain nihilism darkens this Godzilla and puts it within atomic-breath distance of the original Gojira. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim last summer declared boisterously that the apocalypse was cancelled, thank you very much, and that we would band together to punch monsters in the face. Godzilla ’14 bends over backward trying to find stuff for its human characters to do besides take shelter or die. Here, the apocalypse may be averted, but cancelled? — well, it’s not even on the bubble.

For a long time — longer than some viewers may like — we get trembles and intimations of the monsters, nothing more. Then the big guy shows up, and his prolonged roar has a cleansing chthonic power. That sound, like an especially intense thunderstorm, seems to rip the very atmosphere open sharply. Godzilla is here to fight the monsters, though not on our behalf; he really doesn’t care if the MUTOs’ deaths benefit us, nor does he fret if he inadvertently kills several thousand of us while chasing his prey. To the extent that Godzilla doesn’t actively pursue our destruction, he’s on our side. We and our big buildings — well, actually tiny buildings, comparatively — just get in his way.

Depending on the theater at which you see Godzilla, and in which format (2D or 3D), you might not get what you came for. In several of the fight sequences, director Gareth Edwards films the action from a human’s-eye street level, or shows it on TV monitors, or shuts doors on it. This you-are-there gambit is witty. But later, when Edwards’ camera pulls back to give us a full-on view of the carnage, much of it is obscured by smoke or rain or the darkness of night. Poking around online, I find that some viewers are reporting that it’s hard to see what’s going on, and others haven’t had a problem at all, so it could be projectionist apathy specific to certain theaters. Your best bet might be to take in Godzilla at a reputable IMAX venue.

I enjoyed what I could see of the monster mash, and I see that I haven’t talked much at all about the puny humans. Well, each actor represents something via one note. Bryan Cranston is Paranoia and Panic. His soldier son Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Stoic Heroism, while Taylor-Johnson’s nurse wife Elizabeth Olsen is Worry and Nurture. Ken Watanabe shuffles through every so often, repping Quiet Resignation, accompanied by Sally Hawkins, who Stands Around Pointlessly. Actually, the entirety of humanity Stands Around Pointlessly here and in most other Godzilla films, but human audiences are assumed to be so narcissistic as to need human characters to watch onscreen while waiting, and waiting, for the star to come in for his close-up.

Transcendence

April 20, 2014

20140420-203047.jpgIn the slack and dozy sci-fi drama Transcendence, Johnny Depp speaks in the same mechanical drone when he’s human as when his consciousness exists only as a series of bits and bytes. Depp is Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has already “uploaded” the mind of a monkey to a supercomputer in his lab. When he’s shot by an anti-AI terrorist group, Will’s mind is likewise digitally preserved, and he gets his partner and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to put him up on the internet, as though he were a kitten video someone could post on YouTube. Gee, does that mean Will is responsible for the recent Heartbleed virus?

Transcendence is a goofball futuristic think piece without an eyedropper’s worth of (intentional) humor in it. The well-meaning Will, it turns out, loses his humanity once he dies and is reincarnated as a ghost in the machine. He games the stock market to bankroll a vast facility to pipe more power into himself. This power he uses to work on nanotechnology that saves people’s lives but also connects them to his consciousness. In his delusions of benevolent AI godhood, Will doesn’t realize he’s ramping up to a planet entirely jacked into himself — and, oh yes, he’s starting to pursue the new hobby of creating humans.

This would all fit better in a Wired op-ed than in a movie, especially one that loses track of its protagonist so quickly and focuses on the various people, including Evelyn, who debate over whether Will should be stopped or, indeed, can be stopped. The debaters also include Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany as fellow researchers and Kate Mara as a dour leader of the anti-AI movement. We’re meant, I think, to be frightened by Will’s overstepping human ethical bounds, but Depp stays so bland throughout that Will never really seems a threat. And the script, by Jack Paglen, short-circuits itself by beginning five years after the movie’s events, effectively spoiling its own ending.

This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who served as cinematographer on almost all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Nolan takes an executive-producer credit here). Usually cinematographers-turned-directors at least manage a decent-looking first film, but Transcendence is drab and grayish, with occasional abstract images of rain falling (to be fair, this does assume some thematic relevance later) but otherwise as grim as a London afternoon. The movie has zero momentum or urgency — somewhere around the one-hour mark, we get a title declaring “two years later,” and we sink into our seats and wonder why Will’s facility has been allowed by the government to continue unimpeded for two years. The forces gathered against Will are amazingly ineffectual and dithering. They seem to let things go so far because if they didn’t it would be a short movie.

The dullness reaches new lows during the climax, which involves gunplay yet manages to be anticlimactic, with Evelyn begging Will to upload her into the system so she can plant a virus there. Will’s minions, all of whom have been healed by his nanotech, fall to the bullets and are never heard from again. What happens to, say, the blind guy whose sight was restored? Does he die a blind man? Does he die at all, given that the virus shuts down every computer on earth (again, this isn’t a spoiler, due to the idiotic opening scene)? Or does the nanotech heal the bullet-wounded before the system shuts down? Transcendence ultimately has less regard for common humanity than its putative hero-turned-villain ever does. It says that the lives saved by technology, and the countless lives blighted by the global blackout, mean nothing, and government agents and terrorists unite against a demigod that never seems that bad. The movie’s message is as muddled and scrambled as Will’s source code.


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